Forget about steamed buns and smelly tofu, and meet the hot new Chinese snack – latiao! The spicy sticks that are enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame on the global palate.
The cheap "delicacy" is made from gluten, the stuff that makes bread dough chewy. The stick of protein is spicy and is commonly sold at roadside stands.
The snack leapt to national and international fame recently when an overseas Chinese student posted a picture of his foreign classmates "enjoying" the snack online.
The latiao fervor came one month after it caught the attention of a British film crew, and in February, the BBC aired a three-part documentary on Chinese New Year celebrations in which the two presenters were seen roaming a typical Chinese snack street, latiao in hand.
"Latiao is the most popular snack for under-25s in China," one of them said, which seems a little far-fetched, to say the least.
A still from the documentary, also posted on WeChat, fueled a sense of online patriotism, with many shocked — horrified, even — that foreigners would go nuts over the humble latiao, which costs as little as 8 U.S. cents. #Latiaomostpopularsnack became one of the "most-trending" on microblog Sina Weibo.
Of the top ten "Chinese snacks" on eBay, four items are latiao in different packagings, with prices ranging from 10.33 dollars to 25 dollars. Searching "Chinese snacks" on amazon.com, latiao is the first item to pop up, with each packet priced at 12.99 dollars. Liu, a Chinese student studying in New York, said latiao was a favorite snack since he was a child, but after arriving in the United States, he had to buy it on the Internet.
"As time goes by, more of my classmates are beginning to enjoy the snack," Liu said.
In China, the latiao industry generates an estimated value of 20 billion yuan, with 10 companies each producing latiao worth over 100 million yuan a year. Production has expanded in recent years.
Min Quanlu, production manager of WL-Foods, a major latiao maker, said that the company used to package the snack by hand. until five years ago, when demand exploded. Now everything is automated.
"We make 600 million yuan's worth of latiao each year and employ about 2,000 workers," Min said. "About 20 percent of our products are sold in the domestic market, and the rest goes overseas."